Are Your Contact Lenses Safe?

For the country's estimated 35 million contact lens users, cleansing and replacing their lenses becomes a routine that is just as normal -- and seemingly safe -- as brushing their hair or flossing their teeth.

Just ask Paige Reichardt, of Valparaiso, Ind.., an reader who says she wore her contacts for 48 years without any significant eye problems.

That changed in November 2005, when she contracted an aggressive parasitic infection in one of her eyes called Acanthamoeba keratitis, a disease for which 85 percent of victims are contact lens wearers.

Reichardt shared her chilling story on the discussion boards.

"I was told on the first day that I was diagnosed that they would try to save my eye," she said. "So I knew from the start that it was serious."

The treatment, like the disease, was serious. While doctors fought for her eye, she says, she endured a number of unpleasant therapies. One of her medications was a diluted version of the same chemical used in swimming pool cleaners. "You can imagine how that feels," she said.

When the treatments failed, Reichardt endured four corneal transplant surgeries in five weeks as the disease spread and continued to destroy her eye, bit by bit.

"It's a diabolical disease," she said. "I felt like I was in a science fiction movie because there was no way to kill these damn things." In the end, Reichardt lost her eye to the disease.

Her case was one of 138 across the country that sparked a voluntary recall of the popular Advanced Medical Optics Complete MoisturePlus Multi-Purpose Solution for contacts last week.

The company insists there is no evidence that its product is contaminated with Acanthamoeba, which is normally found in soil and fresh water but rarely targets humans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged consumers, however, to throw away any bottles they still have.

It's not the first time that contact lens solution has come under scrutiny; last year, investigators implicated Bausch & Lomb's ReNu MoistureLoc solution in a rash of fungal eye infections that affected 164 contact wearers.

Doctors say that amoebic and fungal infections are only two of the rare but numerous complications that come part and parcel with the use of contact lenses, risks of which many users themselves may not be aware.

"I want people to do the research to see why this happens," Reichardt said. "It is kind of frustrating for those of us victims when they say that this is rare, like it's never going to happen to you."

Are Users Aware of the Dangers?

"There's nothing that is without some degree of risk, and contact lenses are no exception," said Dr. John Sutphin, professor and chairman of ophthalmology at the University of Kansas Medical School.

Since contact lens use is so prevalent, the real question is whether the millions of those who use them daily are aware of the possible health risks, however rare.

Mild problems include conjunctivitis, an inflammation commonly known as "pink eye" that can be caused by a bacterial infection. Generally, a few days of eye drops and care can completely resolve this problem.

On the other side of the spectrum are Acanthamoeba, pseudomonas and E. coli infections that have the potential to rob victims of their sight or even their entire eye.

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